Bargain-driven shoppers stormed America’s malls and shopping centers Friday, glomming onto earlier-than-ever holiday price cuts dangled by retailers hoping to reverse the effects of an economic downturn.
“Consumers feel their wallets are tighter than a year ago, but that said, it’s the holiday season,” said Ellen Davis, senior director of the National Retail Federation. “This is one of the most tried and true retail periods that exist.”
The trade association had projected the slowest sales in five years for the weekend that begins with what has come to be known as Black Friday. But nervous stores began cutting prices earlier than ever to lure in the shoppers.
“I think with the energy crunch, a lot of people are looking for these prices and are really counting on the lower prices for Black Friday,” said Daniel Morales, a spokesman for Wal-Mart.
Gasoline prices above $3 a gallon could not keep early-bird shoppers away.
“We car-pooled,” Nancy Tillman of Theodore, Ala., said as she huddled in a family group over purchases at Colonial Bel Air Mall in Mobile.
The day after Thanksgiving is called Black Friday because it begins the period when many retailers, who depend on the holiday season for much of their profits, break “into the black” for the year.
Davis said retailers had an incentive to get people into their stores as early as possible, because “the first retailer a person usually visits wins.”
“If you come early, you get it,” Connie Ingram said as she raced from shop to shop in Anchorage, Alaska. “If I come late, I won’t get it, and I won’t get that discount.”
‘It’s been chaotic’
For many shoppers, that was as early as Thanksgiving Eve.
Caleb Anderson of Sioux Falls, S.D., began camping out at his local Best Buy at 2 p.m. Wednesday so he could be first in line to snag a $1,000 laptop computer for $800. He and about a dozen other early birds made themselves at home outside the store, cooking up their own breakfast and enjoying a Thanksgiving dinner shuttled to them by family members.
“We had people drive by and say, ‘You’re crazy,’” Anderson said. “But people brought us coffee and everything. It was really nice of them.
“Unfortunately, we had some people who were giving us some nasty stares,” he added.
Laptops and other consumer electronics are expected to be the hottest targets for bargain hunters this year. Retail analysts said many companies, such as Apple Inc., with its updated iPhone and iTouch, were taking lessons from the fashion industry by pushing new models at the height of the shopping season.
“The Wii, the Nintendo, the Playstation, the iPod are all very popular gifts” this year, said Richard G. Kabobjian, a managing partner with business services consultants Deloitte & Touche.
In Greenville, S.C., so many customers lined up Friday morning just after midnight that Best Buy managers began handing out vouchers at 3 a.m. Some grumblers complained that speculators were selling their vouchers for as much as $100, but managers said the process went off without any problems.
Similar scenes took place across the country in the wee, small hours of the morning.
Mall managers reported crowds of 15,000 people waiting in temperatures below 20 degrees for the doors to open at 1 a.m. at Eden Prairie Center in Eden Prairie, Minn. The crowd jamming the streets in front of Macy’s flagship store in New York forced managers to open even earlier than planned. And Alderwood Mall in Lynnwood, Wash., reported that more than 20,000 shoppers flooded through the doors between midnight and 1 a.m.
Fights and arrests in some places
Big retailers spend months planning how deep their discounts will be, even running Black Friday dress rehearsals. But this year’s crush of shoppers overwhelmed some of them, like Prime Outlets in Gaffney, S.C., where traffic backed up for a mile at midnight.
At Tanger Factory Outlets in Bluffton, S.C., the parking lot was filled to capacity by 12:15 a.m. And traffic lined up on the exit to Georgia Square Mall near Atlanta stretched a half-mile back onto Interstate 85.
Managers called police, ambulances and firefighters to help with crowd control at Towne Square Mall in Boise, Idaho, where an estimated 10,000 people lined up to charge through the doors when they opened at 1 a.m. Officials said some doors were broken and some customers were injured in the scramble.
“We just didn’t anticipate the crowd being quite so pushy,” said Darcy Shippy of General Growth Properties, which manages the mall. “Literally, I was out there letting in the first 500 people in and literally almost got pushed over by people.”
Fights broke out at Altamonte Mall in Altamonte Springs, Fla., where doors opened at 1 a.m. and eager shoppers clogged the entrance to Macy’s.
“They pushed everybody and, oh, it was bad — people were fighting each other,” said Christiana Doroteo, who was caught in the mob. “There was a pregnant lady, and they pushed her. Then somebody got in fights over the kids, pushing the kids. They pushed me into the door.”
“It was like you were a pancake,” she added.
Two overeager shoppers were arrested Friday morning after leaving a two-year-old child unattended in a parked car at a mall in Hagerstown, Md., where many stores opened at midnight.
Another shopper saw the child crying about 3 a.m. in the unheated car as temperatures dipped to 36 degrees and called authorities. The child was reported in good condition Friday.
Police warned, meanwhile, that the throngs of shoppers were easy pickings for thieves. Police sent a memo to Greenville, S.C., residents urging them to shop in pairs because “there is generally more safety in numbers.”
Key Christmas indicator
Sales like Friday’s are important indicators for more than just retail profits. Consumer spending makes up two-thirds of all U.S. economic activity, and how consumers spend this holiday season could determine the direction of the overall economy, CNBC’s Margaret Brennan reported.
“Everyone is holding their breath trying to figure out what the underlying consumer demand will be, not just for holiday season and fourth quarter, but for 2008,” said Jeff Klinefelter, an analyst with
That is why Black Friday is the closest thing to a contact sport in the cutthroat world of retail, even though it is not necessarily the most profitable day for retailers. It can give analysts a clue to what will happen on the weekend before Christmas, which is traditionally when sales soar to their highest.
“We think there are price savings that will occur over Black Friday weekend, and we think they’ll continue throughout this season,” said Dana Telsey, chief executive of Telsey Advisory Group, a consumer research firm. “We’re expecting the level of savings to the consumer this year will be greater than it was last year.”
Contributed to this report were CNBC’s Margaret Brennan in King of Prussia, Pa.; NBC’s Michelle Franzen in Paramus, N.J.; Brian Mooar in Anchorage, Alaska; and Janet Shamlian in Dallas; and NBC affiliates KDLT of Sioux City, S.D.; KTTC of Rochester, Minn.; KTVB of Boise, Idaho; WESH of Orlando, Fla.; WHAG of Hagerstown, Md.; WPMI of Mobile, Ala.; WSAV of Savannah, Ga.; WXIA of Atlanta; and WYFF of Greenville, S.C.